Being a Philly Muslim in the Age of Trump
Six months after Donald Trump descended an escalator at Trump Tower and announced his candidacy for president, a slaughtered pig’s head showed up on the front door of a mosque in North Philadelphia.
Police never arrested anyone, and there’s no evidence that the December 2015 incident was in any way connected to Trump supporters. But Marwan Kreidie, a spokesman for the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society mosque, says the Republican’s incendiary language about Muslims and Arab Americans has created an environment in which harassment is more likely to occur.
“Words have consequences,” he says. “Things happen when you talk like that. People take these ideas and run with them.”
During the presidential campaign, Trump has at times vowed to temporarily ban all Muslims from the country and appeared to suggest that there ought to be a nationwide registry of Muslims. He has also defended racial profiling. And over the summer, he waged a public battle with the Muslim parents of a slain soldier, saying the Gold Star mother perhaps “wasn’t allowed” to speak.
In Philadelphia, Trump’s words have created great anxiety among both Muslims and Arab Americans who do not practice Islam. “We’re a diverse community. But what we all share is the same fear of Donald Trump,” Kreidie says. “The joke I hear constantly in our community is, ‘If Donald Trump is elected, you’re going to see me in an orange jumpsuit in Guantanamo Bay.’ They feel his campaign is built on anti-Arab and anti-Muslim rhetoric. People are horrified.”
At the same time, some Arab Americans and Muslims in the Philadelphia region are hopeful that they can help decide the election. Pennsylvania is a must-win state for Hillary Clinton, especially as the presidential race tightens in its final seven days and Democrats worry about the impact of the FBI’s review of a Clinton aide’s emails on the electoral map. “We actually think we can make a difference in Pennsylvania,” says Kreidie.
He might be right: An estimated 160,000 Arab Americans live in Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia is thought to be home to as many as 200,000 Muslims.
Many Arab Americans and Muslims interviewed by Philadelphia magazine said this year has been more frightening for them than the aftermath of the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks was. On top of the Trump campaign, there have also been a handful of high-profile crimes perpetrated by people who claim to have been inspired by ISIS. In Philadelphia, a man allegedly told police in January that he ambushed a cop “in the name of Islam.”
“After 9/11, we came together and kind of united as a country,” says Summar Elgogari, a 22-year-old undergraduate at Temple University who grew up in a Muslim household. “Now, even if you just say the word ‘Islam,’ people look at you funny. … I know women on Temple’s campus that came here in full headscarves and were proud of where they came from, and now they’ve decided to take off the veil because they didn’t want people thinking less of them.”
According to researchers at California State University, crimes against Muslims increased by 78 percent in 2015 — and attacks of those seen as Arab went up even more. “The rhetoric is worse than it’s ever been,” says Kreidie. “The organized efforts to discriminate against people are worse than they’ve ever been. And the acceptance of Islamophobia has been worse than after 9/11.”
Elgogari says she and her family members have been called slurs, such as “sand nigger.” And in January, a 34-year-old Moroccan immigrant claimed he was beaten in Center City merely for speaking Arabic.
A large number of Muslims in Philadelphia are African-American. Omar Woodard, executive director of the venture philanthropy firm GreenLight Fund, says it can be “incredibly demanding” to juggle both identities in the age of Trump. “How he talks about African-Americans and how he talks about Muslims hits me twice,” says Woodard, referring to Trump’s comments about black people “living in hell” in cities. “I don’t think we talk about it a lot, but there’s a tremendous amount of nuance in our nation around identity. And there’s something to be said about individuals who have to negotiate multiple identities inside of them.”
Philadelphia Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr., who is African-American, says people sometimes make offensive comments about Muslims in front of him without realizing that he practices Islam. “A lot of people don’t ID me as Muslim,” he says. “If it’s benign, I don’t dignify it with a response. But if it’s policy-oriented, I stop and say, ‘Some of your best friends are Muslim.’ ‘Well, who?’ ‘Me.’ And then you get that sheepish look.”
If Trump were to win the election, Woodard says doesn’t believe that he would be able to push a Muslim ban or registry through Congress. “President Donald Trump would have more problems outside of the Democratic Party than within it,” he says. “I don’t give the Republicans much credit for pushing back against him, because they did very little, but I don’t think they would literally destroy their party with McCarthy-like policies.”
But others take Trump at his word: “I think you have to,” says Al-Aqsa’s Kreidie, “and we came awfully close to a lot of these things in the Bush administration.” As the Wall Street Journal reported last year, President George W. Bush’s administration put together something of a registry for Muslims and Arab Americans: “In the wake of the September 11th, 2001, attacks, the federal government created a program requiring thousands of Arab and Muslim visitors and temporary U.S. residents to give information about themselves, present themselves for interviews with officials, and notify the government occasionally about their whereabouts.” It was known as the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System.
Some Christian Arab Americans say they, too, are fearful of a Trump presidency. “We don’t have to worry about persecution as much as Muslims in our community,” says Nader Ayoub, a small-business owner living in Delaware County. “But we are Americans of Middle Eastern descent, so it scares us a little bit when someone talks about singling out folks based on where they’re from.”
In fact, Ayoub doesn’t believe that Trump and his supporters make a distinction between Arab Americans of different faiths: “A lot of people don’t even know we exist,” he says of Christian Arab Americans.
Elgogari is worried that if Trump is elected, “he is going to make some kind of rule that bans the headscarf.” She also fears that her relatives will no longer be able to come to America: “When I graduated from high school, I was lucky enough to have my family from Egypt come and see me. If Trump wins the election and wants to deny access to Middle Easterners, that is going to stop my family members from seeing my other siblings graduate.” Even if Trump loses — especially by a small margin — she is afraid his supporters may “turn violent toward people he denigrated in his campaign.”
That’s why Elgogari is hoping for a landslide. She is working as the field organizer of Pennsylvania’s “Yalla Vote,” a nationwide effort by the Arab American Institute to mobilize Muslim and Arab American voters. (In Arabic, “Yalla Vote” means “Go ahead and vote.”) Elgogari has personally registered about 100 people, and is now calling residents to encourage them to go to the polls. She has also helped to set up a mock voter booth at a mosque so voters know what to expect on Election Day.
She isn’t alone. Kreidie and Ayoub are active in get-out-the-vote efforts. Elected officials like Jones are stumping for Clinton. And in December, Christian and Muslim leaders in Philadelphia held a press conference to speak out against Trump’s language. In fact, the weekend after the pig’s head appeared at the mosque last winter, Kreidie says neighbors and members organized a block party to show support for Muslims and Arab Americans in the area.
“When trying to get people to register to vote, they often don’t believe their individual efforts will change anything,” says Elgogari. “So I have to persuade them that as a community they could do that. Pennsylvania has the tenth-largest Arab population in the United States. With that being said and us being a swing state, we as a community can make a really big difference.”
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